Fire investigation can be one of the most complex forensic evidence types. The destructive forces involved create difficulties in interpreting the fire scene and the evidence recovered from it. Improving the standards of training and competency of fire investigators is essential.
In the UK, the Fire & Rescue Services (F&RS) have a major role in the fire-investigation process. Some of the metropolitan and regional F&RS have dedicated fire-investigation teams, but for others it is a ‘bolt-on’ duty that comes with the rank of watch manager or station manager. This involvement of the fire service is not the case in many other countries, where fire investigation is strictly a police role, until or unless the scene becomes an insurance matter.
The UK police rely heavily on the fire investigators of the F&RS. This reliance has increased further since the privatisation of forensic service providers in England and Wales, and the closure of the Forensic Science Service, which used to provide specialist forensic scientist cover for fire scenes where the suspected cause was not accidental, or where there were fatalities. Only a handful of forensic scientists from the privatised forensic companies now attend fire scenes. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the police forensic science laboratory scientists still carry out fire-scene examinations.
However, fire investigation is not a statutory duty in the UK F&RS, and for the most part fire investigation by F&RS fire investigators focuses on Origin and Cause (O&C) and the determination of breaches of fire-safety legislation.
Training and education
There is a requirement for F&RS fire investigators to be competent in several areas of forensic practice, including scene documentation and photography, evidence preservation and recovery, anti-contamination and decontamination, protocols and procedures involving human remains at fire scenes. Further down the investigative process the F&RS fire investigator may be called as an expert witness. The Joint CFOA, IFE and UK-AFI document Code of Practice for Investigators of Fires and Explosions for the Criminal Justice Systems in the UK (2017)1 provides guidance on this.
Although some fire investigators regard themselves as ‘ordinary’ witnesses, qualified to give only factual statements in court, it is important to recognise that fire origin and cause determination is opinion evidence, and is certainly beyond the experience of the layperson. Therefore, fire-investigation evidence is expert evidence.
A major or complex fire investigation these days may involve fire-scene reconstruction, fire tests, chemical analysis, electrical analysis, fire/intruder-alarm analysis, radiography, forensic engineering analysis, CCTV enhancement and interpretation, computational fire modelling, mobile phone cell site analysis, and the interpretation of human behaviour. These are in addition to the wide range of other forensic evidence types involved if the fire is considered deliberate/ fraudulent, or if it is a fatal fire. All competent C&O fire investigators should have an understanding of these evidence types, though they cannot be expected to be an expert in them all. Certain organisations can provide experienced and well-qualified fire investigators who are experts in several of them.
Many different forensic experts may be involved in criminal fires and in fatal fires, as either multi-disciplinary teams, or a series of experts from different organisations sequentially examining the scene, exhibits, or other evidence. The actions of the first fire investigators are critical so that other evidence is not destroyed or compromised. The first responding fire investigators are often the least qualified, so their actions are critical to the outcome of the fire investigation.
It is therefore vital that all F&RS fire investigators are suitably educated to understand the requirement for some or all of these analyses and forensic evidence types and how best to facilitate them by their own actions and interpretations at the fire scene.
Knowledge of forensic science is often limited to experience of working with CSIs, or in some fire brigades a joint training exercise with their police service. The vast majority of CSIs have forensic science degrees and many have masters’ degrees.
Higher education among UK F&RS fire investigators needs considerable development. Some F&RS fire officers now have foundation-degree qualifications in fire investigation and/or are graduate members of the IFE. A growing number have the Skills for Justice Level 5 Certificates in Fire Investigation qualification2. A small but growing number of F&RS fire investigators have Master of Science degrees in Fire Investigation and an even smaller number have PhDs related to fire investigation. The number of universities and other organisations offering such tailored fire-investigation courses is very limited, compared with the number offering general forensic science degrees.
Some UK fire investigators have taken online modules IAAI3 or other American organisations, and a small number have completed the full Certified Fire Investigator (CFI) course. At present there are only about 25 CFIs in the UK.
Fire investigation under the forensic microscope
Fire investigation has come under scrutiny in the UK and in the USA with respect to standards and quality within the legal system.
This is because fire investigation is one of a number of forensic evidence types that relies heavily on the interpretation and opinion of individual fire investigators, rather than on the results of laboratory analyses. Since fire investigation requires the investigator to gather data from many sources and put them together like a jigsaw to test their hypotheses, there is a high risk of error. There is no reliable database from which to draw statistically robust conclusions. There is also a lack of up-to-date experimentation in fire investigation. Practising fire investigators and fire researchers need to ‘burn to learn’ and carry out more scientifically valid tests, for research, education and evidential purposes.
The opinions of different fire investigators examining the same scene may differ. This casts into doubt the scientific credibility of the methods used to determine Origin and Cause (O&C) of fire, which has drawn criticism from the judiciary. The UK Forensic Science Regulator, Gillian Tully, told fire investigators at the UK-AFI conference in January 2018 that there were issues with the standards and quality of fire investigation in the UK. Fire investigation needs Standard Operating Procedures that demonstrate the core principles, but also allow flexibility to deal with the very real differences that occur with each fire.
Furthermore, there is a requirement for all organisations providing forensic evidence in the criminal justice system to meet the stringent requirement of ISO 17020: 20124 by 1 October 2020. The Scientific Method, ISO 17020:2012, and the Codes of Practice that apply to fire investigation in the UK legal system, all require that the validity and limitations of the methods used are known and understood. This will have a significant impact on F&RS if officers continue to provide fire-investigation services to the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales. At the time of writing it is not clear how many, if any of the UK F&RS will achieve compliance by this deadline, and some have expressed little enthusiasm for engaging with the process.
The need for further forensic education in fire investigation
A major issue for the UK F&RS in the next few years will be demonstrating competency and continuous improvement (Continuous Professional Development, CPD), in order to meet the requirements of the Codes of Practice for Fire Investigation, Codes of Practice and Conduct for Forensic Practitioners5 and ISO 17020. To this end, short courses, CPD events and higher education courses, such as those provided at UCLan, provide pathways for new and existing fire investigators to improve their knowledge and engage in fire-investigation-related research.
For more information, go to www.uclan.ac.uk
- Code of Practice for Investigators of Fires and Explosions for the Criminal Justice Systems in the UK (2017). Jointly endorsed by the Chief Fire Officer’s Association, the Institution of Fire Engineers and the UK Association of Fire Investigators.
- Skills for Justice Level 5 Certification in Fire Investigation. http://sfjawards.com/portfolio-item/level-5-certificate-in-fire-investigation/
- International Association of Arson Investigators. https://www.firearson.com/
- BS EN ISO/IEC 17020: 2012. Conformity assessment requirements for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection.
- The Forensic Science Regulator, Codes of Practice and Conduct for Forensic Science Providers and Practitioners in the Criminal Justice System. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/forensic-science-providers-codes-of-practice-and-conduct